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No ordinary banjo

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This is a guest post by acquisitions coordinator Todd Harvey of the American Folklife Center.

close-up of a man holding a banjo in front of a bookshelf
Acquisitions coordinator Todd Harvey shows off a Frank Proffitt banjo, a recent donation to the American Folklife Center.

Today the American Folklife Center accessioned an extraordinary, hand-crafted North Carolina banjo. The instrument was built in 1961 by Frank Proffitt, Sr., of western North Carolina, and given to the eminent folk musician and dancer Douglas Kennedy, of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. We proudly announce that Douglas’s grandson David has gifted the banjo to the Center.

Part of the Beech Mountain, North Carolina, community, Frank Proffitt married into the storied Hicks-Harmon family who settled in that region during the late 18th century. Their early 20th century repertoire of Anglo-American ballads and Jack Tales is represented plentifully in the Folklife Center archive: the Beech Mountain group recorded by collector Frank C. Brown and later Anne and Frank Warner; the Hot Springs group documented by Cecil Sharp and later recorded at the Library of Congress; and the Cades Cove, Tennessee, group recorded by Herbert Halpert. Throughout the late 20th century Ray Hicks and his family performed at the National Storytelling Festival, in Jonesborough, Tennessee, and that archive is now at the Center. The interested researcher can utilize AFC archival materials to compare versions of songs and stories from a single extended family over nearly a century.

As an example, The “Two Sisters,” a European ballad of considerable age, is performed by singers from each of the family branches. That the family also made fine instruments adds poignancy to their variant of the ballad. The ballad narrative usually includes a jealous older sister pushing her younger sister into a river where she drowns. Her corpse drifts downstream and is plucked out at the mill pond. In most American variants the miller steals the dead girl’s rings and rightly hangs for it. British Isles variants and those sung by some of the Hicks-Harmon family aver that as the dead girl is pulled from the river by the miller, a harpist happens by and fashions a resonator from her breastbone, strings from her hair, and screws from her fingers. The resulting harp, “whose sounds would melt a heart of stone,” exposes the murderess, the inanimate made animate in the form of an instrument.

three men sitting, the man in the middle holds a banjo
From left, Frank Warner, Frank Proffitt, Sr., Douglas Kennedy, Pinewoods Camp, MA, 1961. Courtesy of David Kennedy

A different song of tragedy, however, brought Frank Proffitt to national attention. His version of a widely known murder ballad known as “Tom Dooly” or “Tom Dooley,” and based on the real-life trial and execution of Tom Dula in 1868, was heard, recorded, and performed by collector Frank Warner. You can hear Warner’s recording of Frank Proffitt singing “Tom Dooley,” with guitar accompaniment, at this link. Much has been written about this exemplar of transmission from local tradition into popular culture. The yawning gulf in culture between Frank Proffitt and the Kingston Trio, the latter for whom “Tom Dooley” was a 1958 hit and career-maker, illustrates the breakneck transformation of mid-century American culture.

yellow and black business card with name and picture of folk instruments
Frank Proffitt, Sr., business card, 1960s. Corporate subject files, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

Frank Proffitt did not become rich from the royalties of the song that rang through him on its way to stardom. Proffitt was a master of the traditions he practiced and he did achieve fame during the early 1960s through appearances and recordings. He performed at the Newport Folk Festival and the University of Chicago Folk Festival, and appears on home recordings of enthusiasts who made the trip—Nagra tape decks in hand—to Pick Britches Valley to sit on Proffitt’s porch just as they crowded the porches of North Carolina fiddler Tommy Jarrell or Othar Turner of the north Mississippi Hill Country. Frank Proffitt was a full-on hero to those who knew from whence the music came and knew the real stuff when they heard it.

In the summer of 1961, during the final months of a thirty-seven-year directorship of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Douglas Kennedy traveled to the United States. Kennedy and his wife Helen were featured teachers at the Pinewoods camp in Massachusetts. The Country Dancer (winter 1961, p.15) reported:

Naturally, Douglas and Helen Kennedy were special drawing cards…. Our special folk singer from North Carolina, Frank Proffitt, who charmed everyone during Folk Music Week with his songs, Banjo playing and making, and by his interest in all that went on, has a very special place in Pinewoods 1961. … A happy moment was the presentation to Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy by the campers of a Banjo made by Frank.”

woman recording a man playing guitar while sitting on front porch steps
Anne Warner recording Frank Proffitt, Sr., Pick Britches Valley, NC, 1941. Anne and Frank Warner collection (AFC 1950/002), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

Kennedy himself wrote about the encounter in English Dance and Song (25, no. 1, p.7):

Folk Music week brought a new influx, including Frank Warner, an American collector and singer, with a folk singer from N. Carolina, name of Frank Proffitt, who had his own versions of many ballads and examples of handmade banjos, guitars and dulcimers. Like our own country folk in England, Frank Proffitt, who bore himself with a relaxed dignity, was always ready to sing or wise-crack, or play tunes on his instruments. We were fortunate to be presented with one of Proffitt’s handmade five-string banjos by the members of the folk music school.

Frank Proffitt’s public career was brief, as he passed away in 1965. Two years earlier he was on the cover of Sing Out! (13, no.4), the most prominent American folk music journal. According to the cover photo caption, Frank represents “the traditional” while Len Chandler, Bob Dylan, Peter La Farge, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and Mark Spoelstra represent “the new.” A profile included in the issue by Frank Warner recounts Warner’s version of the “Tom Dula” story and also Proffitt’s many successes. He acknowledges Proffitt as an instrument maker and quotes him at length on that topic:

 As a boy I recall going along with Dad to the woods to get the timber for banjo-making. He selected a tree by its appearance and sounding … hitting a tree with a hammer or axe broadsided to tell by the sound if it’s straight grained.… As I watched him shaping the wood for a banjo I learned to love the smell of the fresh shavings as they gathered on the floor of our cabin…. When the strings was put on and the pegs turned and the musical notes began to fill the cabin, I looked upon my father as the greatest man on earth for creating such a wonderful thing out of a piece of wood, a greasy skin, and some strings. (p.8)”

A close-up of a hand-crafted banjo built in 1961 by instrument maker Frank Proffitt.

Here is the luthier speaking in reverent terms about a wooden instrument. His 1961 creation could be clinically described as five string, fretless, wide-rim, wooden pegged, sawn and carved of Juglans nigra, with a small head from the skin of Marmota monax. These are the distinctive physical characteristics of the Hicks-Proffitt banjos. More to the point, though, this instrument is made from a living thing by living hands and sounded by a person with the sole purpose of experiencing the joy and flow of musical performance. Musical instruments are sacred for many reasons and the banjo is no exception. Like the harp made from the drowned sister, they are animate, rendered inanimate, and then returned to life.

This banjo was handed down from Douglas Kennedy, to his son Peter Kennedy, and to his son David Kennedy. It was David who determined that, given the American Folklife Center’s relationship to the Proffitt family and our central importance as a research center for American folk music, this Frank Proffitt, Sr. banjo should grace the collections of the Library of Congress.

Comments (12)

  1. Congratulations, Todd! Frank Proffitt made a left-handed fretless banjo for me in 1963. I have treasured it, and it is now in the hands of my son, Mike Hickerson.

  2. Wonderful essay, Todd! I knew much of the history, having been a ballad scholar in my early folklore career, but I was particularly struck by the narrative of picking the tree for an instrument. I experienced something very similar when working with a pounded ash basket maker in western Massachusetts. The knowledge of the forest and what to look and listen for when picking a tree to be crafted into an instrument or a utilitarian object is priceless. Thanks for helping me to remember that.

  3. Thanks to Michael Kennedy for this significant contribution. The timing is perfect. This July, my brother Gerret and I are donating to the Library a banjo made by Frank Proffitt’s father-in-law, Nathan Hicks. Nathan made it for our father, Frank Warner, in 1938. Over the years, some 250 traditional musicians, folk revival artists and folklorists signed the banjo (head, neck and pot). The two banjos will make fine companion pieces at the Library.

  4. To add to the list, I have the Proffit banjo that Frank used on his Folk-Legacy recording. The recording was done at F-L in Huntington,VT. As I recall it, the banjo – and a boxy case Frank had made for it – wouldn’t fit in F-L co-founder Lee Haggerty’s “bathtub” Porche. Lee drove Frank back to NC without it, and Sandy Paton eventually sold me the banjo and sent Frank the money. No, I have no recollection of what I paid for it, only that Vaughn and I were far-from-wealthy VT schoolteachers.

  5. That’s a wonderful acquisition! A similar black walnut banjo which Frank made and played for his final recordings with Folk Legacy Records hangs on my wall, ready to be taken down and played. The photo of Frank Warner, Frank Proffitt and Douglas Kennedy at Pine Woods shows the instrument now in my hands.

    Is there any register of his banjos?

  6. We have a banjo purchased from Frank Proffitt #1191 dated 1-1-1963 and a dulcimer the Mrs. Proffitt sent just after Mr.Proffitt’s death and 3 hand written letters from him about my purchases and other things. I’ve had communications with Paul Dolce a collector in Ohio that many of the instruments that Mr. Proffitt sold were actually made by Leonard or Clifford Glenn. I’ve saved that e-mail set, but now can’t find the posts on Banjo Hangout (I think) that led to our communication.

  7. Wonderful story and recollection. Visited Frank along with Howie Mitchell and the Armstrongs in the early 1960s.Don’t have one of Frank’s banjos but I do have a mountain dulcimer he made for me in 1963. Wish I had a banjo too!!

  8. The banjo has wooden pegs, but the body is not wooden pegged. The three parts of the rim are put together with screws, which are countersunk and covered with wooden plugs. It is an unusual instrument in that it is clearly made by Frank, and not his neighbors Leonard and Clifford Glenn. Most of the Proffitt signed instruments that show up were made by the Glenn family, but sold with his signature in the underside of the head. This one is the second instrument that has been documented online, and it is a pleasure to see it. I hope more of them show up over time. There is a Facebook group “Hicks/Proffitt/Glenn Mountain Banjo” where I saw this article posted. The group attempts to learn more about these instruments and their makers, both old and new, through photos and personal documentation, but more importantly through the music. We encourage any mountain banjo owners to share images so that we can understand more about their development.

  9. What a wonderful article!

    I own a number of Watauga County instruments including Frank Proffitt, Leonard and Clifford Glenn, Stanley Hicks, Edd Presnell, etc.

    I am in possession of all of the patterns used by Leonard and Clifford Glenn that were used to make the vast majority of the instruments sold by Frank Proffitt. The images of the banjo in this article are clearly not of the hands of either Leonard or Clifford Glenn, in my opinion.

    I am also in possession of patterns used by Stanley Hicks in his instrument making.

    What a wonderful addition to the Library.

    Paul Dolce

  10. Many thanks to Todd Harvey for this beautifully written and researched blog post on our newly acquired Frank Proffitt Banjo. We should also acknowledge English folksong scholar and performer Martin Graebe’s role in the acquisition of this wonderful instrument. Martin, who recently published the book As I walked out: Sabine Baring-Gould and the search for the folk songs of Devon and Cornwall, had traveled from England several times to perform in the U.S. and, during his travels, stopped by to visit the American Folklife Center for a tour of our resources and to do some research of his own. On September 12, 2017, Martin emailed me to let AFC know that he was assisting Peter Kennedy’s son David in finding a home for several of Peter’s musical instruments in the wake of Peter’s death. Martin queried, “Do you have any thoughts on where the Kennedy banjo might best be placed? Jeff [Warner] explained to me that, while there are a number of similar banjos around, there are fewer which were made by Proffitt himself, and certainly none with those signatures and history. If your organisation is interested in taking it, I would recommend to David that he should pass it on to you.” Martin had attached several excellent photographs of the instrument along with his email. I responded in less than an hour to Martin, making the case that AFC would be an excellent home for the banjo, given that our Anne and Frank Warner collection contained field recordings of Frank Proffitt singing (among other songs) that seminal version of “Tom Dooly.” Todd emailed Martin to second my enthusiasm a few days later, and, happily, the acquisition moved forward. We are delighted to be the new custodians of this precious banjo, and grateful to Martin Graebe for reaching out to us that September day last year.

  11. It was well known in the Beech Mountain community that Leonard and Clifford Glenn made banjos for Frank Profitt to sell. They didn’t consider it dishonest. The pattern and techniques were shared among the makers, and they frequently helped each other out. The genealogies of those families and a history of their music and instrument making is in my dissertation (Negotiating Tradition: Collectors, Community, and the Appalachian Dulcimer in Beech Mountain, North Carolina, 1995, Univ. of Pennsylvania). My interviews with many of those individuals, including Frank’s wife and son, are at the archive at Appalachian State University in Boone.

  12. Both Stanley Hicks and Frank Profitt Jr told me that Frank SR never built a banjo in his life. Frank Jr said it was because his father was afraid of saws. The discussion to the contrary is very strange. – John B. Evans

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